"I'm not exotic, I'm exhausted"; This non-binary artist is fed-up with being fetishized

With their cropped hair and effortlessly stylish aesthetic, Kayla Cho looks like New York Fashion Week come to life. A ray of light in the quiet coffee shop, Kayla’s down-to-earth personality comes to life as our conversation unfolds.

We went to high school on opposite sides of the county, but everyone I knew, knew Kayla as well, granting them a mini-celebrity status I envied. Finally meeting them was surreal.

A student at Gaston College, Kayla is well on the way to a degree in both arts and fine arts. Kayla mentions they’ve always been the artistic type, taking a few classes here and there in high school, but never getting serious until college. Now, they’re working on developing a signature style, using experiences with sexism, racism and identity to blaze the trail forward.

Growing up in a predominately white school, they never felt truly “connected” to their Japanese heritage. Home cooked dishes brought for lunch were called “weird and smelly” by other classmates, and unwanted, often sexual comments about their appearance were the norm.

One of Kayla’s first pieces, My Eyes Are Up Here captures their frustration at being constantly objectified.

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“Through self-portraiture, I am addressing the fetishization and sexualization of the Asian race that I experienced while growing up as an Asian-American in predominantly Caucasian schools. Growing up, I received unwanted comments about my vagina; those being whether I had a ‘tight’ or, rather, a ‘sideways’ vagina or not.

“With speculations of having a ‘tighter’ vagina and with my ‘exotic’ looks, I became objectified because of my ascribed status. I painted my eyes as vaginas to reflect the way that these experiences disturbed me, affected my self-image and my perspective on my place in America.”

When I asked if the pieces had any unifying themes, they responded, “It’s about borders. Borders always being there and knowing that you’re American, but you don’t really belong here. I feel neither here nor there.”

As we talk more, I realize it’s not just about feeling different, but being made to feel different.

“Along with the shock value, I want to let everyone know about the fetishization of Asians. I feel like it’s something that’s known, but not ever touched on. It’s really quiet.” Another self-portrait, Yellow Fever, uses the manga style typical of Japanese comics to highlight the problem.

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So far, Kayla has received a ton of positive attention for their work, being featured in Flawless Mag, Apple Pie: An American Art Show and the Yellow Show. They’re just getting started, and stress that they’re still quite new and developing a coherent art style.

Going forward, Kayla plans to transfer to Appalachian State University to tackle a degree in ceramics. Studying the ceramic art form abroad in Japan is also on their to-do list. Afterwards, they hope to realize their dream of opening a studio where everyone can come to admire and learn about art and the everyday people behind it.